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Can Romney pivot to the center on foreign policy?

Mitt Romney stunned Barack Obama in their debate last week, in part by ditching the persona of a movement conservative -- vowing not to reduce taxes for the rich, to protect education funding, highlighting his willingness to work across the aisle, and so on. It was a deft move, one that clearly has caught off balance an Obama campaign that was counting on running against the unpopular agenda of Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan. As New York Times columnist David Brooks put it, "Moderate Mitt" -- the successful businessman and technocratic governor of Massachusetts -- has returned.

On Monday, Romney is due to give a speech on foreign policy at the Virginia Military Institute. Can he do the same?

I have my doubts. For one thing, making a pivot to the center on foreign policy would entail embracing Obama's position even tighter than Romney already has. If you strip aside the bluster, Romney's foreign policy looks much like Obama's. Why give a big speech if you're just going to explain that you more or less agree with the other guy? Nuance doesn't sell in an election year.

Second, the Obama administration's stumbles on Benghazi offer a pretty tempting target, and it's clear that Romney will try to hit the president hard on Libya. Never mind that Romney's been all over the yard on the Libyan war, or that the kinds of austerity budgets he and his running mate favor imply deep cuts in diplomatic security -- the death of an ambassador is evidently too good an opportunity to pass up. Mitt Romney has probably never thought about Libya a day in his life -- but he'll be all over it tomorrow.

Finally, what issues could he reasonably pivot on? Would he say that he'd try to work with Russia on smoothing the U.S. path out of Afghanistan? That he'd take military force off the table in dealing with Iran and vow not to entangle the United States in Syria's civil war? That he'd push hard for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and seek to de-escalate tensions with China?

It's hard to imagine any of those things happening -- which is why I expect Romney's big speech will be more of the same: America good, strength good, military very good, Obama very bad.

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The Election 2012 Weekly Report: Obama's bumpy week

The debates begin

The two candidates met for their first head-to-head debate on Tuesday night -- an encounter almost universally agreed to have been won by Mitt Romney. The debate was focused on domestic policy, but the rest of the world did come up a few times. Romney noted that, "Spain spends 42 percent of their total economy on government. We're now spending 42 percent of our economy on government. I don't want to go down the path to Spain." The statement provoked some backlash from Spanish reporters and politicians, and is slightly misleading, as well: Spain actually spends 46 percent and the American figure includes state and local expenditures as well.

Romney also promised to "open up more trade, particularly in Latin America" and "crack down on China if and when they cheat." Employing a popular applause line from the campaign trail, Romney also vowed to "eliminate all programs by this test -- if they don't pass it: Is the program so critical it's worth borrowing money from China to pay for it?"

Barack Obama, who appeared somewhat listless throughout the debate and unable to effectively defend his record, returned to national security when summing up his accomplishments as president. Describing his willingness to "take ideas from anybody, Democrat or Republican," the president said, "That's how we signed three trade deals into law that are helping us to double our exports and sell more American products around the world. That's how we repealed ‘don't ask, don't tell.' That's how we ended the war in Iraq, as I promised, and that's how we're going to wind down the war in Afghanistan. That's how we went after al Qaeda and bin Laden."

The two also clashed on defense spending, with Romney arguing, "We have a responsibility to protect the lives and liberties of our people, and that means the military, second to none. I do not believe in cutting our military." Obama countered that Romney's pledge to provide "$2 trillion in additional military spending that the military hasn't asked for" is economically unsustainable.

The two candidates will meet again on Oct. 16 for a town hall debate that will feature foreign and domestic policy and a final debate on Oct. 22 focused entirely on international issues.

Romney on the attack

Romney is likely hoping to capitalize on the momentum from his debate performance, and part of that will be renewed attacks on the president's handling of national security. Romney is scheduled to give a speech on foreign policy at the Virginia Military Institute on Monday. He still trails Obama in polls asking voters which candidate they trust more as commander in chief, though Obama's foreign-policy numbers have been slipping in the wake of the recent turmoil in the Middle East.

Romney's speech may continue themes raised in a Wall Street Journal  op-ed on Monday which criticized the president's handling of the crises in Libya, Syria, and over Iran's nuclear program. "[A]mid this upheaval, our country seems to be at the mercy of events rather than shaping them. We're not moving them in a direction that protects our people or our allies," Romney wrote.

On domestic policy, Romney seemed in the debate to have moved away from the Tea Party-influenced rhetoric on spending cuts and tax breaks that he has employed since the GOP primary toward more centrist positions, prompting Obama to quip, "When I got on the stage, I met this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney." The VMI speech will be an indication of whether a similar shift is underway on Romney's approach to foreign policy.

Benghazi backlash

The Obama administration continues to face criticism for its handling of the attack in Benghazi, Libya, three weeks ago, that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Asked on 60 Minutes on Sunday if recent events in the Middle East had caused him to reconsider U.S. support for the Arab Spring, Obama replied, "I think it was absolutely the right thing for us to do to align ourselves with democracy [and] universal rights, a notion that people have to be able to participate in their own governance," Obama said. "But I was pretty certain and continue to be pretty certain that there are going to be bumps in the road because, you know, in a lot of these places, the one organizing principle has been Islam. The one part of society that hasn't been controlled completely by the government. There are strains of extremism, and anti-Americanism, and anti-Western sentiment."

Republicans have seized on the "bumps in the road" remark, with Romney campaign spokesperson Andrea Saul, saying "After nearly four years in office, President Obama is eager to make excuses for his failed policies at home and abroad by declaring ‘bumps in the road.'" Former candidate Newt Gingrich was more blunt, tweeting, "It is disgusting to have Obama describe the killing of an ambassador and three other Americans as 'a bump in the road' on 60 minutes." White house spokesperson Jay Carney countered that suggestions that the president was referring to the killing of Stevens in his remarks were "desperate and offensive."

The State Department began a review this week into the circumstances of the Benghazi attack and what security lapses may have occurred. Critics have asked why the ambassador was in such a lightly defended compound in a city where militant violence had recently occurred on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. FBI investigators finally arrived in Benghazi on Thursday, three weeks after the attack and after the site had already been picked over by looters and reporters. Some officials have suggested that the State Department dragged its feet in securing a security escort for the agents, though the administration blames the Libyan government for the delay. 

When will Syria be an issue?

The crisis in Syria showed worrying signs of inflaming the wider region this week when Turkey shelled targets within Syria in retaliation for a Syrian Army mortar attack that killed a woman and three children in Akcakale, Turkey. The Turkish parliament has authorized further military action, though it does not appear likely that there will be a larger military response for the time being. NATO called an emergency meeting to discuss the issue, though there has been no discussion yet of invoking Article 5, which would obligate the alliance to come to the aid of member state Turkey. The U.S. State Department called Turkey's actions "appropriate" and "proportional" and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed outrage at the Syrian mortar attack.  

The possible internationalization of the conflict raises the question of whether the Syria crisis will become more of an issue in the campaign. The Romney campaign has accused the president of having "dragged his feet" in response to the crisis and a "lack of leadership" but Romney has provided few specifics on how he would handle Syria differently other than being "more assertive."  In his Wall Street Journal article, Romney noted that, "In Syria, tens of thousands of innocent people have been slaughtered" but didn't address the crisis further.

Looking ahead to the VP debate

The major political event of next week will be Thursday's vice presidential debate at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. Democrats are hoping for a strong performance from Joe Biden to stop the GOP's momentum. In the debate, which will include both foreign and domestic policy, Paul Ryan may be looking to establish his national security bona fides in a debate with the more experienced Biden. Ryan has lately been taking up the attacks on the administration's handling of Benghazi, telling radio host Laura Ingraham, "We've seen a confused, slow, inconsistent response to what is now very clearly known as a terrorist act."

The latest from FP:

Peter Feaver, Clyde Prestowitz, and Dan Drezner shared their thoughts on the debate.

Uri Friedman looks at the 10 best foreign-policy moments from debates past.

John Norris lists 6 campaign gaffes that really mattered.

David Rothkopf says it's time to start thinking about 2013.

Aaron David Miller slams Romney's Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Michael Cohen says the Pentagon doesn't actually care about the national debt.

Issac Stone Fish imagines what would happen if U.S. political hacks covered China's horse race.

Plus: Follow the latest from the campaign on The Cable and Passport.

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